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Monthly Review - The Waters of March

By Thiago de Aragao.

This March was one of the most exciting months in the latest years as far as South America is concerned. The diplomatic row between Colombia and Ecuador, with a gratuitous cameo by Venezuela, was certainly the month's greatest event. The troop movements, the hard stance taken by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, and the apologies for invading Ecuadorian soil on the part of Colombian president Álvaro Uribe have left their mark in the continent's diplomacy this month.

As expected, it was all a false dawn. Hugo Chávez broke into a party with no invitation with a clear intent – diverting domestic attentions from the severe food shortage the nation is experiencing. It worked for some time. Obviously, one must not forget the possible links between the Ecuadorean and Venezuelan governments and the FARC, which resulted in general discontent by Hugo Chávez and Rafael Correa.

The row, which generated fears of a military conflict, cooled off with OAS intervention, which did exactly what Brazil should have done. One more time, Brazil's foreign policy showed little interest in solving neighboring crises. The same had happened when Uruguay and Argentina were fighting over the installation of paper mills, and so was it again.

The now famous hug occurred in the Dominican Republic, during the 20th Rio Group Summit. It featured Uribe and Chávez, as requested by Dominican president Leonel Fernández. In spite of the apparent peace, the crisis is not over. Chávez and Correa are still sympathetic towards the FARC, and the political antagonism between Uribe and his neighbors is becoming more and more evident. Border violations occur on a daily basis and, whenever convenient, Chávez and Correa will accuse Colombia again.

Besides, Brazilian president Lula was the target of plenty of internal criticism from advisors and party colleagues. According to them, the president missed an important opportunity to resurface as the continent's leader. Failure to participate in the Rio Group Summit made Lula miss one of this year's most important images in South American politics. The coming together of Uribe, Chávez and Correa might have been orchestrated by Lula, who stayed in Brazil instead of attending the important summit. The Brazilian president justified his absence due to the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese royal family in the country. With his decision to send chancellor Celso Amorim to represent him, Lula missed an opportunity to consolidate his leadership. Since the beginning of the diplomatic crisis, the Brazilian was having daily talks with the stakeholders. Advisors close to Lula regret mostly that a strategy to isolate Hugo Chávez went wrong at the most deciding moment. Taking advantage of Lula's absence, the Venezuelan changed his tone of voice and left the event as one of the engineers of the diplomatic agreement. Chávez asked for peace and advocated the creation of a group to exchange hostages for imprisoned guerrillas.

Colombia

In spite of the diplomatic row that heavily involved the government actions, the country managed to obtain some relevant results in terms of domestic policy. Business missions aiming at increasing Colombian exports such as coffee, banana, processed food and consumer goods were relatively successful.

Uribe continues seeking foreign investors for the country. Tax incentives are the main attraction the government is offering to investors willing to establish their businesses in Colombia. With Argentina on the verge of a severe energy crisis, Venezuela in chaos and Peru still not showing the necessary confidence, Colombia is the main destination (alongside Chile) for European and US companies interested in establishing themselves in Hispanic America.

Bolivia

The people's referendum on the new Constitution, scheduled for May 04, has been suspended indefinitely. The reason came from the National Electoral Commission, which put the blame on not having enough time to prepare the referendum with the required electoral guarantees. There are no technical, operating, legal or political conditions for the referendum to take place. The commission's decision is a blow against Bolivian president Evo Morales' plans to implement a new Constitution that, according to him, will give greater voice to Indigenous peoples, women and the poor. However, opponents of the constitution reform understand that it would place Indigenous peoples above the rest of the Bolivian population.

As an energy supplier to both Brazil and Argentina, Bolivia is proving a failure. As he nationalized several facilities, Evo Morales promised that natural gas extraction would become more professional and that the waste caused by previous governments and administrators would cease. Almost two years later, the country cannot export the amounts agreed upon with Brazil and Argentina, and might even not be able to provide enough natural gas for their domestic consumption.

The Bolivian government has launched a plan to save energy in the country, but has ruled out the possibility of importing petroleum-liquefied gas during winter. The proposal to save energy was presented by the hydrocarbon minister Carlos Villegas. It is called "National Plan of Energy Efficiency" or "energy revolution."

Argentina

President Cristina Kirchner has completed 100 days in office. As expected, her term has seen a continuation of policies implemented during the four years of Néstor Kirchner's presidency. According to government sources, Néstor runs an office with a large staff inside the Casa Rosada. Rumor has that government command stems from there, whereas Cristina takes care of diplomacy abroad and acts as a spokeswoman for the decisions made at Nestor's cabinet.

The political moment is far from good. Strikes and roadblocks by farmers all over the country will cause Cristina's approval rates to drop. The negotiation, which is vital for the Argentinean economy, should occur shortly in the next week.

The positive economic scenario against fragile opposition, which is more interested in reorganizing aiming at the 2009 legislative elections, favors Cristina. As a consequence, 54% of Argentineans see her in a positive fashion.

Due to Cristina's reliance on Néstor's previous government, her profile could not yet be seen. In the foreign arena, we can see that she has greater negotiation skills than her husband.